Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review 360: The Meaning of Fossils

THE MEANING OF FOSSILS:  Episodes in the History of Paleontology, by Martin J.S. Rudwick. 287 pages, illustrated. Chicago paperback

Martin Rudwick begins his five essays on “The Meaning of Fossils” about the time of Shakespeare’s birth, when scholars were trying to decide whether fossils had any connection to life. Ancient people had had no doubts about that, at least for the big, showy stone bones.

The Chinese thought these were dragon bones and pulverized them for medicine. There was thus no chance that a science of paleontology would start in China, because collections of carefully recorded specimens were a prerequisite.

In the Hellenistic and Roman world, showy bones were recognized as remains of fabulous creatures and giants and were deposited in temple treasuries. These might perhaps have led to a science except that, as Gibbon noted, they were swept away with much of the rest of civilization by religion and barbarism. Among the losses were marvelously beautiful triceratops shields that had been fossilized as gemstones. Somehow, these made their way to Greece from the central Asian deserts.

Americans were like the Chinese. The Indians and Spaniards noticed the spectacularly beautiful stone trees of el desierto pintado and left them alone.

American capitalist entrepreneurs planned to pulverize them for fertilizer. The government socialized them to save them for all of us, but government could not protect the fossils from the penknives and hatpins of Boobus Americanus. Within a few years they had pried off the calcite crystals that made the Petrified Forest sparkle under the Arizona sun.

In the sixteenth century, scholars began trying to sort out the curiosities that were considered “fossils,” some of which were inorganic, some not. They did not come to a conclusion about whether any were remnants of former life, in part because the state of knowledge of biology was too sketchy, in part because their Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophies did not lead them to ask that question. Here, and throughout these lectures that were delivered in the 1970s, Rudwick is concerned to debunk the idea, promoted by Victorian historians, that it was religion that retarded the recognition of what fossils meant.

He is party convincing as regards thinkers who may be called (anachronistically) scientists, not so much about Christian intellectuals. Cotton Mather was perhaps the first American to pay attention to fossils, and his thoughts were every bit as silly and prejudiced as any Victorian historians alleged them to be.

By Mather’s time, scientists were nailing down the organic origin of fossils – shark’s teeth were important here – and beginning to consider whether fossils could answer questions such as, how old is the Earth?

This led, by the time of the French Revolution, to conclusions about stratigraphy, classification and the length of time life had existed.
Most of this advance happened under government auspices in Paris, and England – in the grips of religious obscurantism – became a backwater in the developing science of paleontology (and other sciences as well).

Rudwick notes that ideas that later became important originated in odd corners of inquiry, and progress was strongly determined by discoveries that became more and more numerous but were not plannable – except in the sense that a growing army of trained investigators was looking everywhere.

The final chapter takes the history to about 1870, by which time Darwin, the geologists, botanists and bone-hunters had completed the framework by which we understand fossils today. Except, of course, for that large fraction of Boobus Americanus whose understanding is stuck about where it was when Shakespeare was born.


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